The Right Way to Clean Old Coins

Here's what to do—and not do—when cleaning collected coins.

Chalk it up to the excitement of having my own money for the first time, but when I was a kid, I loved cleaning all of the coins collected in my piggy bank before cashing them in at the real bank. While there was little purpose in cleaning the coins I was about to hand over to the bank teller, the dramatic transformation of watching dingy, grime-covered coins come out sparkling clean was oddly satisfying. If, like 6-year-old me, your kids are curious about how to clean coins, follow the simple steps below to get dull coins sparkling using a slightly acidic solution that will eat away at the brown oxidation on the coins. Bonus: Those freshly cleaned pennies will be perfect candidates for pressed penny souvenir machines.

However, if you're a novice coin collector wondering the right way to clean old coins, you might want to rethink. According to many serious coin collectors, cleaning the coins may actually cause them to depreciate in value. Using chemical cleaners or scrubbing the coins could leav​​e scratches and marks that will be easy for a skilled appraiser to pick up on. If you're a serious coin collector, there are professional services you can hire to clean coins in a way that won't diminish the coins' value. That being said, if you're collecting just for fun and with no intention of one day selling or trading your coins, the steps below will get old coins gleaming.

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What You'll Need:

  • Salt

  • White vinegar (or fresh lemon juice)

  • Shallow plastic container

  • Cloth or paper towel

  • Baking soda (optional)

  • Toothbrush (optional)

  • Dishwashing liquid (optional)

Follow These Steps:

  1. In a jar, combine one cup vinegar (or lemon juice) and 1 tablespoon salt. Stir until the salt is dissolved.

  2. Pour the solution into the plastic container. There should be enough liquid that pennies lying flat on the bottom of the container will be fully submerged (if not, add more liquid).

  3. Add the coins in a single layer, so none of the coins are touching. Wait 15 minutes.

  4. When you remove the coins and wipe them with a cloth or paper towel, they should look shiny. If the layer of brown oxidation doesn't budge, return the coins to the dish and let them soak for five more minutes.

  5. Method #2: If your kids want a more hands-on approach to coin cleaning, add a small amount of water to a tablespoon of baking soda to form a paste.

  6. Let your kids use a toothbrush to apply the paste to each coin, scrubbing gently. Rinse the coins to reveal the now-shiny surfaces.

  7. Method #3: Fill the plastic container with a 1-inch layer of warm water. Add a squirt of dishwashing liquid and agitate the water to create bubbles.

  8. Add the coins, and rub each one until the surface looks shiny. Rinse with warm water, then dry.